"How many PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] staff members does it take to screw in a light bulb? One to hire a contractor who fails to complete the job and two to write the press release in the dark."
A FOB is a Forward Operating Base, and the Fobbits who live in them have their own brand of sad SNAFU humor, enough to fill many volumes and constituting, in my opinion, the silver lining of our wars. The above bit is taken from Peter Van Buren’s new book "We Meant Well." The author has been in the U.S. Foreign Service for 23 years, working in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the U.K., Hong Kong, and — from 2009 to 2010 — in Iraq. The book is about Iraq.
"The reconstruction of Iraq was the largest nation-building program in history," Van Buren writes, optimistically using the past tense, "dwarfing in cost, size, and complexity even those undertaken after World War II to rebuild Germany and Japan." Van Buren describes this mission as lunacy wrapped in fraud, and yet he volunteered to be part of it several years after the population of war supporters had been reduced to Fox News viewers who’d been abandoned as children. Why? Perhaps Van Buren’s explanation provides some perspective on the health of our society:
"I had never served in the Middle East and knew nothing about rebuilding past the Home Depot guides, but people like me were what the [State] Department had been dealt to play this game. The new rules boxed me into serving or seeing my career flatline. Less cynically, despite my reservations about the war, I still believed in the idea of service (love the warrior, hate the war) and wanted to test myself. I also needed the money, and so the nexus of duty, honor, terrorism, and my oldest daughter’s college tuition (hopefully there’ll be another war when my youngest is college age) led another FSO [Foreign Service Officer] into semivoluntarily joining the Cause."
As one who considers war to be worse than slavery or rape, please forgive me if I find this revolting. He couldn’t test himself as a volunteer fireman? He couldn’t teach his daughter through the example of noncooperation with evil? He wants another million corpses to pay for his other daughter’s education? Nobody ever says "love the rapist, hate the rape," or "despite my concerns about the slave plantation, I believed in the idea of service."
For $63 billion, by Van Buren’s count, give or take a giant stack of bills or two, the "reconstruction" of Iraq in which he "served" amounted to a giant exercise in reckless insincere waste and futility. Van Buren may grasp that this fact stems from the status of civilian efforts in Iraq as a minor appendage to a military occupation. Yet, it’s not clear he wouldn’t "serve" in another war if you paid him enough. On the other hand, his book, "We Meant Well," might persuade millions never to set foot in an "Overseas Contingency Operation," and if millions bought the book perhaps Van Buren could stay home too. Plus, as Michael Moore always says when trying to promote a meaningful film to disengaged audiences: It’s comedy!
Van Buren’s introduction to Fobbit procedures, upon his arrival in the cradle of bureaucracy, didn’t go well:
"The team claimed they had never been held accountable for money spent. They explained that previous leaders would sign everything without question, like a high school substitute teacher. I wouldn’t sign, and it looked like things were at a stalemate. As I wondered how to get out of the room and maybe grab a taxi to, say, Paris, Ms. Sharon, our Iraqi-American adviser, broke the silence by announcing that I did not trust her. I’d never met her before and ten minutes into the relationship was too early to not trust her, or trust her. She began crying and ran out of the room. I asked Mel if he had drafted the project and, if so, why he did not seek multiple prices and resolve some of the issues. He said Ms. Sharon had done all of the work. Did Ms. Sharon have an agricultural background? Mel mumbled no, her only previous work experience was doing office work in Chicago."
But it was Van Buren who was behaving inappropriately, the result of his lack of familiarity with missions that involved limitless funding:
"We lacked a lot of things in Iraq: flush toilets, fresh vegetables, the comfort of family members nearby, and of course adult supervision, strategic guidance, and common sense. Like Guns N’ Roses’ budget for meth after a new hit, the one thing we did not lack was money. There was money everywhere. A soldier recalled unloading pallets of new U.S. hundred-dollar bills, millions of dollars flushing out of the belly of a C-130 cargo aircraft to be picked up off the runway by forklifts. . . . You couldn’t walk around a corner without stumbling over bales of money; the place was lousy with it. In my twenty-three years working for the State Department, we had never had enough money. . . . Now there was literally more money than we could spend. It was weird. We’d be watching the news from home about foreclosures, and I’d be reading e-mails from my sister about school cutbacks, while signing off on tens of thousands of dollars for stuff in Iraq."
"Stuff" or no stuff, as the case might be, and usually was:
"At one point, we were tasked to give out micro-grants, $5,000 in actual cash handed to an Iraqi to ‘open a business,’ no strings attached. If he took the money and in front of us spent it on dope and pinball, it was no matter."
After six years in Iraq, communications, at least, had improved dramatically:
"Though Iraqis will shout their opinions at you in the street and wave their hands like a crack-crazed aerobics teacher to make a point, it was hard to sort out what they said from what they meant from what they thought you wanted to hear. Add in a bad translator who reduced three minutes of rapid speech to ‘He disagrees but loves all Americans and Obama president’ and you often had no idea what was going on."
Endless projects were developed for Iraqis at incredible expense, without involving or even meaningfully consulting Iraqis. Farmers who sold milk locally just fine were expected to send it to new processing plants. Same deal with chickens. None of these schemes panned out — except of course for the profiteers:
"There was no evidence of chicken killing as we walked past a line of refrigerated coolers. When we opened one fridge door, expecting to see chickens chilling, we found instead old buckets of paint. Our guide quickly noted that the plant had purchased twenty-five chickens that morning specifically to kill for us."
Read that light bulb joke above again. The important part was the press release:
"It turns out most journalists are not as inquisitive as TV and movies would have you believe. Most are interested only in a story, not the story. Therefore, it was easy not to tell the journalist about the chicken plant problems. Instead, we had some chickens killed so the plant looked busy. We had lunch at the slaughter plant — fresh roasted chicken bought at the market."
Then there’s the tale of how the Green Zone got green grass:
"Gardeners brought in tons of dirt and planted grass seed. A nearly endless amount of water was used, but despite clear orders to do so the grass would not grow. . . . The Ambassador would not admit defeat. He ordered sod be imported into Kuwait and then brought by armored convoy to the Embassy. No one confessed to what it cost to import, but estimates varied between two and five million dollars."
There are 1,001 of these tales in "We Meant Well," and eventually Van Buren reveals a two-step process required to handle them:
"Task one: Suspend disbelief, rewire your brain, accept [what] people at the Embassy who never stray outside the Green Zone tell you about Iraq. . . . Task Two: Convince yourself of the overall premise of U.S. efforts, that Iraqis want to be like us."
I humbly offer a third step: if you expect to have any trouble with task one or task two, stay home.